Rhett Butler’s People, written by Donald McCaig in 2007, is the second novel authorized by Margaret Mitchell’s estate. The book is more of a parallel to the epic novel Gone With The Wind than a sequel, and I couldn’t wait to read it. But I should have …
Gone With The Wind
I have long been a fan of the classic movie, Gone With The Wind, which is based on the book of the same name. Written by Margaret Mitchell in 1936, the book explores the life of Scarlett O’Hara during the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction. Years ago, I read that Mitchell tried to write a sequel to GWTW, but either she failed, or she didn’t finish it before her untimely death in 1949.
Starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable, the four hour movie barely skimmed the surface of Scarlett’s story. Mitchell’s estate has sought to bring fans more of the story, first in the authorized sequel Scarlett, which picks up right where GWTW leaves off, immediately following Melanie Wilkes’ death. But fans have so many questions about Rhett Butler, another book was authorized in the early 2000s, and in 2007, McCaig’s novel hit bookshelves.
When I was young, I read voraciously, but now I have a serious lack of time to devote to reading, so several years ago, I began to listen to books. Honestly, I didn’t even realize this book existed until I was browsing Amazon.com, and this popped up as a suggested reading. I read Scarlett almost as soon as it came out in the early 1990s, and I was mostly pleased with it, so I looked forward to listening to RBP.
Books are a lot like people, I think. They make a first impression with their opening passage, and that can set the tone for the entire relationship. Right off, this book didn’t make a good impression. I think that McCaig tried to portray Butler as the rakish man with whom we grew familiar in GWTW. Sadly, he just comes off as two dimensional and flat. He seems unable to take things seriously when they should be taken seriously. He lacks depth, and that showed so well in the opening chapter. McCaig tried to answer all the questions fans had about Rhett, but sadly, few of the answers rang true.
The book opens with Rhett and his friend John Haynes headed toward Rhett’s date with destiny. Shadrack Watling, the brother of Belle Watling, accuses Rhett of being the father of Belle’s unborn son. Rhett challenges Shadrack to a duel, and Shad is killed. This is the infamous reason of Rhett’s disinheritance by his father. The only thing is, it doesn’t quite line up with Mitchell’s account of the incident, no matter how scant the details.
In GWTW, Cathleen Calvert tells Scarlett that Rhett was turned out and not received in any home in Charleston because he took a girl out buggy riding without a chaperone. When they experienced trouble with their buggy, they did not return from the ride until quite late. Rhett refused to marry to girl, and the brother challenged Rhett to a duel. There was no baby, Cathleen said, “but she was ruined, just the same.”
There are so many discrepancies, they became impossible to track. It’s like McCaig skimmed through Mitchell’s book, picked a few things on which to focus, and then tossed Mitchell’s book aside. Here are a few I noticed.
He doesn’t acknowledge Alexandra Ripley’s sequel, Scarlett, at all. In his world, none of that happened. At the very least, you’d think he could have used the same names for Rhett’s parents.
Rosemary Butler Haynes Ravenell
Rosemary Butler, Rhett’s sister, wasn’t born in GWTW when Rhett is turned out. She’s a “change of life” baby, who is a gangly, shy girl of around 13 when Rhett finally meets her during his days as a blockade runner during the War. He has regrets about not being part of her life, and says so. In Scarlett, she’s a spinster. But in RBP, she’s married twice and bears two children.
When Rhett and Scarlett marry and visit New Orleans on their honeymoon, Scarlett meets a woman who says she and Scarlett’s mother, Ellen Robillard, were girls together in Charleston. The woman is made to sound like she was very old, with thinning white hair, very wrinkled, bordering on frail. At that point, Scarlett would have been in her late 20s. Ellen, had she lived, would have been in her early to mid 40s. In fact, in Scarlett, it’s revealed that Rhett is a year older than Ellen.
Ellen Robillard’s love, Phillipe, was mentioned far more in RBP than he was in either of the other two books. It seemed important for McCaig to make an impression that Ellen’s heart wasn’t with Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father. It came off sounding petty and trite. And very annoying, to boot.
Melanie Hamilton Wilkes
But the portrayal of Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett’s sister-in-law, probably bothered me the most. Mitchell’s Melanie (Melly) was soft and kind, unable to fathom disloyalty in anyone she loved. And she loved Scarlett a lot. Honestly, I’ve always questioned how Melly could love Scarlett so completely, but I’ve come to take it for granted. Melly stood beside Scarlett throughout everything, no matter how annoying Scarlett might find her. Mitchell paints Melly as loyal and loving, whereas McCaig recasts her as someone who gossips behind Scarlett’s back to Rhett’s sister, Rosemary.
I rolled my eyes at how McCaig tied people together like Rhett and Archie. Archie is in Mitchell’s book as a Confederate soldier who takes up residence in the Wilkes’ basement after the War. She never mentioned any connection between Archie and Rhett, but McCaig turns them in to war comrades.
McCaig also tried to explain Rhett’s time in jail after the War, when he was arrested for killing a black man. I won’t even dignify it with space here, but it was one of my least favorite parts of the book.
He also attempts to explain Rhett’s frequent trips to New Orleans, where Rhett goes to visit a “ward.” McCaig explains that as the bastard child Belle Watling was carrying at the beginning of the book. He further ties Rhett to Belle by setting her up in business as a fancy lady. Oh, and apparently, Belle loves Rhett and has since she was a child.
Rhett Butler’s People, Concluded
In the end, McCaig ends his book with the same conclusion that Ripley ended Scarlett – Rhett and Scarlett are together, burned out of their home, but happy to be together again. (Insert eye roll here)
The book wasn’t altogether awful. OK, it was pretty awful. McCaig rarely used a first name without also used a surname. “Andrew Ravenell!” “John Haynes.” And on and on and on and … you get the picture.
The author focused on seemingly small things – the yellow scarf that Scarlett uses in GWTW to make Ashley Wilkes a sash, for example – and turns it in to something more than it was. He leaves larger things – like the death of Bonnie Butler – as little more than a footnote in his book.
He. Burned. Tara.
That alone was enough to make me want to beat him. But he went too far when he turns Belle Watling in to a friend for Melly and Scarlett alike. There is not a world I can imagine in which Scarlett (or any other woman) would welcome her husband’s suspected mistress (and town whore) in to her home, kiss her on the cheek, and treat her like a valued friend. I cannot see his sister doing it, either. I thought I would die when Mrs. Tarleton asks Belle if all men are “alike.” But all of this happens in this book. /face palm
In my opinion, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind romanticized the Old South to the point most people who lived through it wouldn’t have recognized it. But McCaig’s Rhett Butler’s People went too far in the other direction, and turned the entire story into a caricature of itself. A hateful, angry, caricature. Flat characters, undeveloped and unlikable, populate the book. And that’s too bad, because I had much higher hopes for the book. Instead, this reads like something that wasn’t researched, where the author had no history of the story, and who doesn’t like the characters at all.
I have never been so disappointed in a book in my life, and that’s saying something.